WASHINGTON — As American Catholics line up to vote on Election Day, like their fellow citizens they’re deeply divided over the two major party candidates for president, Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In the days leading up to the election, Crux spoke with a sampling of Catholic voters about their choice, which issues matter most to them, and what role their faith played in their decision. Unsurprisingly, some are voting Trump and some are backing Clinton.
Joseph Cella, a member of the Catholic Advisory Group for the Trump campaign and the founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, said he’s already voted in support of Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, because of their stances “on the issues of greatest importance to Catholics, from the sanctity of human life to the defense of religious liberty.”
Cella, who heads a Michigan consulting firm, had been among a group of Catholic conservatives who voiced opposition to Trump during the primary campaign, but he changed his mind after a “discernment process” that involved “thinking, praying and listening” to Trump’s stances on those key issues.
“Religious liberty is on the line. You have to take a stance. The sanctity of life is at risk,” and life must come first, said Cella, the Catholic liaison to the Trump/Pence campaign.
A Catholic voter alert distributed by the Trump campaign noted that Trump is pro-life and opposes partial birth abortion, supports defunding Planned Parenthood and opposes taxpayer funding for abortion, while Clinton supports abortion rights and funding Planned Parenthood, opposes a partial birth abortion ban and supports taxpayer funding for abortion, and is endorsed by the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood.
That flier also charged that Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, “support the government forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception coverage or face millions in fines from the government,” while Trump has spoken out in support of the Little Sisters and their case, which reached the Supreme Court this year.
“It’s a chilling specter that hangs out there,” Cella said.
The Trump campaign’s Catholic voter alert also warned that Clinton would appoint Supreme Court justices who would support abortion rights, while Trump has said he would appoint justices like the late Antonin Scalia, who opposed abortion on constitutional grounds. The alert also noted that Trump supports school choice, which Clinton opposes.
“For Catholics, these are the core issues,” Cella said, also charging that Clinton in her policies and her key campaign aides in emails released by WikiLeaks demonstrate hostility toward Catholics.
When asked about controversial remarks Trump has made about women, Cella referred to an earlier statement that he released noting that those comments “are repulsive and undignified, and cannot be condoned or defended. We appreciate and accept Mr. Trump’s regret and apology to our fellow citizens.”
Steven Krueger, the president of Catholic Democrats, takes a far different view.
“I will be voting for Secretary Clinton because I think she will be a great president,” said Krueger, who noted that his group, which is headquartered in Boston, is an advocacy organization that promotes the Catholic social justice tradition in the public square and in the Democratic party.
Krueger said that if elected, Clinton will support economic policies that provide opportunities for all citizens, with equal pay for equal work.
“She will keep families of undocumented immigrants together, and provide a path for citizenship,” he said, noting Clinton’s support for comprehensive immigration reform.
The head of Catholic Democrats said Clinton would also work to “preserve God’s creation, expand health care access, make college education affordable for everyone, will work to eradicate racial injustice and to reform our criminal justice system, and will work to pass common sense gun safety legislation. I think she will be a strong, responsible commander in chief who knows how to keep peace and use our military might prudently.”
The Catholic Democrats’ website notes that some Catholics are pro-choice and others are pro-life, and it quotes the U.S. bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship that says, “As Catholics, we are not single-issue voters.”
Krueger said studies show that abortion rates declined in the United States under recent Democratic administrations. “We can put all kinds of political rhetoric around the issue of abortion,” he said.
“In today’s environment, we need to find common ground to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion. That’s something everyone can agree on.”
The WikiLeaks release of emails, which included Clinton’s Catholic advisors calling for a “Catholic spring” to bring democracy and gender equality to the Church, were, in Krueger’s view, “much ado about nothing,” and express conversations that Catholics have about the Church today.
Cella, on the other hand, has said they reflect “anti-Catholic bigotry.”
For Marjorie Dannenfelser – the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which advocates for laws to protect unborn children and their mothers from abortion – this year’s presidential election offers a stark choice that could have a generational impact on Supreme Court appointments and federal and state laws regarding abortion.
“I’m voting for Trump and Pence, because they’re the pro-life candidates in this race,” she said. “The contrast is very clear. We’re talking about the life and death of people, when that right is at stake and so fundamental. They (the unborn) have no voice of their own.”
She noted how in the last presidential debate, Clinton made clear how she opposes restrictions to late-term abortions.
Dannenfelser, who is also a member of the Catholic Advisory Group for the Trump campaign, said her faith “has taught me the value of prudential judgments and making tough decisions in hard times. I can’t remember a public moment when that is more necessary than right now.”
Of her decision to vote for Trump, Dannenfelser said, “I believe emphatically, it’s the right decision to make because it’s about the life and death of human beings.”
When asked about Trump’s stance on immigration, which includes building a Mexican border wall and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, she said she doesn’t support that policy, but she added, “The right to life is the genesis of every other single right… Right-to-lifers have compassion for life which no one else will defend. This is so in sync with those who fight for immigrants. It’s the same fight.”
Neomi De Anda, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, participated in early voting on her birthday, Nov. 4, in the swing state of Ohio, and voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I find no other choice as a Latina,” said De Anda, who grew up near the border in El Paso, Texas, and noted her family is of “Mexican and Californian mission Native American descent.”
“Because I’m from the border, I was raised to see that area as community,” she said, noting members of her family have lived on both sides of the border.
She believes Trump’s immigration stance reflects xenophobia and also ignorance of the fact that there is already a fence forming a barrier on much of the border, like that which Pope Francis prayed near during his visit to Mexico earlier this year.
She also believes Trumps proposals to restrict Muslims entering or immigrating to the United States run counter to this country’s tradition of religious freedom.
Growing up Catholic, De Anda said she learned the importance of working for justice, and she said the Catholic social teaching about the common good and community shape her own views about immigration and the presidential race.
In her view, Clinton’s campaign emphasizes “we can do this together, whereas the Trump perspective is very individualistic.”
De Anda said she believes abortion is part of a spectrum of life issues. “Like Pope Francis has been saying, abortion is not the only issue. The issues are much broader… (about) how do we respect human dignity, how do we help humans flourish in all aspects of life.”
Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, noted that an increasing number of “Dreamers” – students who are undocumented immigrants – attend college there under a policy put forward by the Obama administration.
She said Trump’s stances on immigration and his rhetoric have left those students “in tremendous fear that they and their families will be deported… These are young women of tremendous potential for our country.”
McGuire voted early, for Hillary Clinton.
“She more closely represents the values I care about,” said the head of Trinity Washington University, founded in 1897 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur as one of the nation’s first colleges for women. “As a Catholic, I try to find a candidate who reflects as many values I believe in as possible.”
McGuire said Clinton’s policies support justice for all people, including the poor, and she noted Clinton is an experienced leader, and her election would offer a powerful statement about the advancement of women in this country.
The university president believes Trump by his words and actions “disrespects women. The word misogynist is not too strong,” she said.
McGuire said she is pro-life, and acknowledged Clinton’s stance on the abortion issue, but she said, “I don’t believe Donald Trump, and I don’t believe anything he says about upholding the values of the Catholic Church.”
“We’re picking a president who has to run a government for all people. We’re not picking a pastor or a pope. We cannot ignore all the other issues which are life issues,” McGuire said.
James Nicholson, who formerly served as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, noted that he supported Jeb Bush, not Donald Trump, in the Republican primaries.
“Donald Trump won the Republican primary fair and square,” said Nicholson, who joined the Catholic Advisory Group for the Trump campaign and said he will vote for him. He said for Catholics and for Americans concerned about the country’s future, the difference between the two candidates is as stark “as night and day.”
Nicholson expressed concern that Clinton’s Supreme Court and other judicial appointments “will affect the decisions of our federal judicial system for more than a generation.”
He believes Trump’s policies will create more jobs, and that the Republican candidate will do a better job of reforming the nation’s services for its veterans.
“In the case of immigration, it’s a sensitive issue,” Nicholson said. “The first thing we have to do is protect our borders. He (Trump) is committed to the rule of law.”
Nicholson said, “As Catholics, the choice between Trump and Clinton is made easy. Trump respects religious freedom. Trump respects life, the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. Hillary Clinton is a strong proponent of Planned Parenthood, partial-birth abortion and Roe v. Wade.”
He added, “The value of life is a fundamental Catholic issue. The value of life is foundational for Catholics.”
Alex Mikulich, the assistant director for mission and ministry at Loyola University in New Orleans, said he would be voting for Hillary Clinton because he believes “she is the most qualified for the presidency.”
The university official said the former secretary of state’s stances on climate change and racial justice also matter to him. “Secretary Clinton understands both black lives and police lives matter, and those are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
His Catholic faith, he said, guides his life and work and how he votes.
“For me, I think the core of our Scripture, both Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, is a call to love our neighbor, and that means caring for those most vulnerable among us,” he said. “That fundamental orientation to care for the most vulnerable in society is what drives my ministry and everything I do, and how I vote.”
Mikulich said he is pro-life, but he doesn’t believe Trump is “a champion for the unborn.” He said Clinton in her policies toward immigrants, minorities and people with disabilities “has a deeper sense of compassion and serving the common good. I think he Trump) is unprepared and unfit for the office.”
This Election Day will be special for his family, Mikulich said.
“I’m voting on Tuesday. I’ll be voting with my daughter who will be voting for the first time. She turned 18 this summer. She looks forward to voting for the first woman president.”